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Holiday Traditions Are Cheesy, Exhausting, And Totally Worth It

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Photo-Illustration: by Cut; Photos Getty Images

I can still imagine my first Christmas through a multicolored haze of twinkling lights in a dimly lit room, made more fuzzy by the sleepy eyes of a tired 6-year-old. Our family was new to Canada, still figuring out who we were in this strange place. My parents were fallen Muslims, no longer religious, though still as hungry for rituals and traditions as anyone after a lifetime of living within a culture dominated by them. But that year they were also eager to embrace these new foreign customs, experience the trappings of unfamiliar holidays, and wear festive, ill-fitting sweaters.

They took a small artificial tree, decorated it with red, green and yellow lights and placed it on top of an old cardboard box which they turned upside down. My two younger sisters were just babies, so I was the only one who knew what the tree represented and what might lie underneath if the story my parents told about Santa Claus was true. I was a cynical child – no doubt a side effect of having moved house and country four times by then – so I didn’t entirely believe that an old man would show up in this cold basement apartment and leave me anything, least of all the Barbie I was keeping an eye out. I waited up all night, determined to catch my parents in the act. Every time I woke up from a nap, I would look at the tree and it looked the same as before. Small, shiny and strangely naked.

In the morning, I was the first to get up. I woke up my parents with the news that Santa Claus hadn’t come yet, that there was still nothing under the tree. I was disappointed, though pleased, to be right. My parents laughed and told me to look closer. Finally my dad moved the tree and lifted the cardboard box, revealing an array of wrapped presents underneath. It was so surprising and exhilarating that I still find myself smiling at the memory, at the delight I felt in that moment, that utterly pure sense of wonder that is so hypnotic, even now.

I love to imagine my parents trapped together in a tender conspiracy, outlasting me at my own game, secretly wrapping presents and finding the perfect way to hide them so that morning feels like magic. It was such a smooth way to land in this strange new place, worlds away from where I spent my early years.

After that, Christmas ceased to be a tradition; having three young children under the age of 6 is exhausting enough in itself without the added pressure of spending the weeks leading up to these big holidays doing that particular form of parenting. My mother (and let’s face it, it’s usually the mother) worked the night shift and paid for herself at school, so going out for a holiday she didn’t even celebrate became the last thing on her mind growing up. Which, as a parent now, I can appreciate. But I also know how much the two of them poured the exact same energy and love into our birthdays and other new rituals we created together as a family, as exhausting as I know it must have been at times.

With two children, I think a lot about what, if any, traditions I want to carry forward as a parent and why it matters if I do.

When I had my first child, I was also starting over, having moved from Toronto to London with a newborn. I felt deeply helpless and a little lost without my family and friends to anchor me in this vulnerable phase of life. I missed those familiar faces, I missed the specific ways we used to celebrate and spend time together. I wanted to create something new that would help define our family unit, that would begin to tell the story of who we were as parents. As the keeper of family memories, I felt I had a chance to create a legacy of love that would hopefully surpass the contours of those rituals and live on in the fabric of my children’s lives. I began to understand how important these traditions were to me, as much as they were to the children, to help me navigate this challenging and sometimes uncomfortable new role as a parent.

I dove into finding ways to ground ourselves, to use newly created traditions to bring a sense of normalcy and security into our lives. Christmas was easy to get a hold of – with its ancient rituals and pretty trinkets.

So I overdid it a bit by trying all the things I never ate as a kid: I baked (poorly); we have a giant, real tree that we dress to the nines; we buy advent calendars; we’ve indulged in every semi-related holiday movie. The baby was oblivious, but I ended up feeling at home, slowly becoming more comfortable in this city and as a mother. It took me back to that first foggy winter 34 years ago, to what my parents must have felt when they strung those red, green, and yellow lights around that plastic tree.

Over the years, with my son getting older and very excited about Santa and my daughter just figuring out what the presents under the tree are for, we’ve dropped some rituals and added new ones. Some were just too tiring to keep up with and some just didn’t make sense for us as a family. But the ones we kept quickly took on a tender meaning.

Every year, we cut down our own Christmas tree, spend an entire morning choosing the perfect tree, and then bring it home full of excitement. And the small handful of ornaments we started to collect in London four years ago has turned into an amazing hodgepodge collection that includes a pink glass banana we bought when we decided to return to Canada and a ceramic pizza chosen by my son a year after our daughter was born. After taking the tree home, we make popcorn, put on the cheesiest songs, and then gently unpack the ornaments to decorate the tree. When we started doing this, it was my husband and I who were so concerned about the ritual of decorating the tree; now it’s our 5-year-old son who takes the lead as he carefully takes each ornament out of the box and finds the perfect branch to hang it on.

Sometimes these things can feel like a burden, especially for the people in the family who end up putting everything together. There are definitely times when I think: What is all the stress for? I know I rolled my eyes at my own parents for forcing unity when no one else is in the mood or insisting on celebrating the same way year after year despite us all being so much older. And yet I cry to think of our son hanging these same ornaments we collected in his childhood on his own tree one day and I suddenly understand so acutely the power of tradition and how it carries on our legacy in ways big and small. So that even when I feel overwhelmed by the task, the pressure of putting it all together year after year, I know that what will live is so much bigger than the details or how well I got it right.

I know that these traditions are not only what make the holiday special, but also what make us a family.

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